Library plan suggests new branches 3-year Pratt vision involves delivering services by computer

'Not pie in the sky'

Up to 6 old facilities could be replaced with 2 to 4 buildings

January 02, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

A three-year strategic plan to take Enoch Pratt Free Library into the 21st century includes an idea that hasn't been tried in Baltimore since 1971: new neighborhood libraries.

If realized, two to four new branches -- designed and wired to deliver vast library services by computer -- could replace up to six old branches built in an age when books were the main vehicle for information.

Construction would not begin until late 1999 at the earliest. Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden envisions large buildings with parking lots replacing several of the Pratt's scattered cubbyhole branches. It costs about $2 million to build a 15,000-square-foot branch library.

"We're talking about bricks and mortar and cyberspace," said Dr. Hayden, whose staff has been refining the strategic plan over the past year. "This is a realistic plan, not pie in the sky."

The 110-year-old Pratt last built a new library 25 years ago, the Light Street branch in South Baltimore. At its peak in the early 1960s, the Pratt ran about 35 local branches, most built in the days when each neighborhood had its own movie theater, bakery and drugstore.

To be financed with municipal bonds, the new buildings would embody the primary objective of the strategic plan: making it possible for everyone in Baltimore -- no matter how young or poor -- to ride the Internet to a better life.

Said Dr. Hayden: "If you're not on line, you're going to be left behind."

Overall, the 1996-1999 plan emphasizes improved services to young people and community organizations. By early summer, the Pratt intends to install one Internet-ready "Kids Corner" computer in each of its 28 branches and the central library at $5,000 each.

"We launch a lot of surfers, old and young, on the Internet," said Patricia E. Wallace, a head of the library's Information Access division. "But that's always been the traditional role of the library, introducing people to the wonders of knowledge."

In July, the library expects the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center to open its new headquarters and resource center at old branch No. 2 on Hollins Street -- the library H. L. Mencken grew up using. The Pratt will provide a core reference collection on solving community problems.

The next three years also will see Dr. Hayden and James C.

Welbourne, assistant Pratt director, labor to make branches more efficient before they decide which ones will be closed to make way for new branches. "This is what the library has to be if it's going to survive beyond the year 2000," Mr. Welbourne said.

Despite the city's steady decline in population and tax base -- resulting in a library that has struggled for the past 15 years to maintain basic services -- residents have fought all attempts to close neighborhood branches, no matter how small or poorly used.

Since the Pratt ultimately will be shrinking its network by four libraries, maybe more, it must persuade the public that computer screens can deliver the goods as well or better than buildings.

"We're looking for host sites to expand our services without the cost of maintaining buildings, to allow people to get comfortable with places other than a branch for their library needs," Mr.

Welbourne said.

He added: "With computers we can put the library into city agencies like public housing, day care centers, senior centers, or churches. Our minivans can transport staff and films and book collections on site."

The Pratt budget is a spare $19.6 million, which does not allow for all 28 branches to be open full time. The Waverly library, targeted for a reduction in hours in October before patrons protested with a "read-in," now is open 49 hours a week. Branches in Clifton Park, Cherry Hill and Morrell Park only operate 22 hours a week.

And the fact that Pratt headquarters on Cathedral Street -- designated by state law as the library for all of Maryland -- continues to be closed Fridays is a lingering frustration.

Last year, a $1.2 million city grant allowed the Pratt, among other things, to fund the "Kids Corner" program and enhanced Hispanic and Russian collections for branches serving those ethnic groups.

The grant also will allow the Pratt to improve branch security; add two minivans to shuttle books and programs around town; put a new roof for the Herring Run branch; plan for installation of a computerized kiosk at Harborplace or Mondawmin Mall; carpet the central library children's department; and relocate the audiovisual department to the main floor of the central.

Robert Hillman, president of the Pratt trustees, is responsible for finding new city, state and private funds. That effort has been hampered by the difficulty in landing a development officer, despite interviews with more than 30 candidates. With the new plan, that could change, Mr. Hillman said.

"Several large foundations have told us to bring them the right project and they'll fund it," he said. "Private giving to the Pratt is now around $250,000 a year. By the end of fiscal 1997, that should be on the order of $1 million."

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